January 30, 2013
PRECARIOUS BALANCING: Tobias (John Glover) struggles with a difficult marriage, an angry daughter, unexpected house guests and the existential terrors of existence, in Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” (1966) at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 17. (Photo by Richard Termine)

PRECARIOUS BALANCING: Tobias (John Glover) struggles with a difficult marriage, an angry daughter, unexpected house guests and the existential terrors of existence, in Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” (1966) at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 17. (Photo by Richard Termine)

Towards the end of the first act of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1966), currently playing in a stunning revival at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, Tobias (John Glover) late middle-aged, upper- middle-class suburbanite, reminisces about a pet cat he had owned and loved for many years. One day he realized that “she didn’t like me any more. It was that simple …. I resented having a … being judged. Being betrayed.” So he took her to the veterinarian to be put to sleep.

Some forty years later Tobias lives in a precariously balanced marriage with his wife Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Agnes’ alcoholic sister Claire (Penny Fuller) has taken up permanent residence, and, before long, best friends Harry (James A. Stephens) and Edna (Roberta Maxwell) move in, followed soon afterwards by Tobias and Agnes’ 36-year-old daughter Julia (Francesca Faridany), returning home from the break-up of her fourth marriage. Tobias’ cat story may be a metaphor for the human relationships in this play, but there is no vet available to provide a simple way out for any of these tortured characters. They must live with the losses inflicted by time and the existential terrors of human life.

A Delicate Balance, the first of three Albee plays — also Seascape (1974) and Three Tall Women (1991) — to win the Pulitzer Prize, resonates with a striking immediacy and timelessness in this brilliant, thoroughly engaging production. Emily Mann, McCarter artistic director and a longtime friend and collaborator of Mr. Albee, has directed here with authority and wisdom, bringing out the full horror and the full tenderness of these thoroughly mundane yet bizarre proceedings. Ms. Mann has assembled an ideal cast, and together they deliver richly deep, complex individual characterizations and an array of relationships that are utterly credible, intriguing, and three-dimensional.

Despite the familiar surfaces in this drama, with an opulent, deceptively conventional upper-class suburban living room setting, beautifully and realistically designed by Daniel Ostling, this is a difficult play for audiences and actors. There are frequent moments of humor, but the themes here are dark, the loquacious dialogue requires close attention, and the play — at least by contemporary standards — is long, about three hours. And nothing happens, or at least not much seems to change from beginning to end for these despairing characters.

A Delicate Balance might be just as mean and deadly as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1961), considered by many to be Albee’s greatest play, but A Delicate Balance is more subdued, more civilized. In the world of Agnes and Tobias, who were to some degree modeled after Mr. Albee’s adoptive parents, the proprieties of upper class WASP society, that “balance” that Agnes has dedicated her life to preserving, are mostly, except for one or two major outbursts, maintained. “There is a balance to be maintained, after all,” Agnes declares, ” though the rest of you teeter, unconcerned, or uncaring…”

All three acts of A Delicate Balance take place in Agnes and Tobias’ living room. Mr. Ostling’s set is rich in detail, from Oriental rugs to high white molding, beautifully upholstered furniture, sconces, chandeliers, archway leading to front hallway, stairs, and dining room on stage left, adjoining room and backstairs on stage right. At first glance you might want to move right in. After watching the events that transpire during the course of the drama, you will change your mind. A well-supplied liquor table sits at center stage, and alcohol — brandy, cognac, anisette, gin, martinis — serves as a frequent topic of conversation and a motif throughout the play. Claire’s alcoholism is a constant issue and alcohol is a means to help all to escape unpleasant truths and memories and to maintain the “delicate balance” in their lives.

The difficult relationship between Agnes and Tobias quickly becomes apparent in the first act. The intrusions on their shaky domestic scene rapidly ensue. First Claire, who may have had an affair with Tobias in the past but in any case poses a constant threat to her sister’s need for order and control, enters the scene from upstairs. Then Harry and Edna suddenly appear at the front door, with no explanation except that “WE WERE FRIGHTENED … AND THERE WAS NOTHING.” They insist on taking refuge with Agnes and Tobias. They act as if they belong there. By the start of the second act, the angry, self-centered Julia, furious that her childhood room is occupied by Harry and Edna, has joined the volatile mix.

The odd presence of Harry and Edna, and the terror they bring with them threaten to upset the status quo, the social equilibrium of the household. The terror is never specified, never explained, but it is completely credible. Is it the existential fear of loss, the terrible compromises of life, the doubts brought on by contemplation of old age and death? A Delicate Balance is certainly about the needs and requirements of friendship, but it is also about the despair of the human condition and, as Mr. Albee is quoted in his biography by Mel Gussow, ”the isolation of people who have turned their backs on fully participating in their own lives and therefore cannot participate fully in anyone else’s life.”

Ms. Chalfant’s Agnes is elegantly controlled, stern, judgmental, and eloquent in her defense of her way of life. Much celebrated star in Angels in America on Broadway and Wit Off-Broadway, Ms. Chalfant’s Agnes sees herself as the fulcrum of the balance in the family, and is determined to “keep this family in shape. I shall maintain it; hold it.”

Mr. Glover (Tony Award winner in Love! Valour! Compassion! along with numerous other Broadway, Off-Broadway and film credits) provides a worthy counterpart and foil to Ms. Chalfant’s Agnes. He is often passive, attempting to be conciliatory with his wife, sister-in-law, daughter, and friends, trying to do the right thing with his intrusive friends, and suffering visibly and sympathetically in “the dark sadness” he inhabits throughout the play.

As Agnes’ alcoholic sister Ms. Fuller injects energy and a needed breath of candor, humor, and fresh air to the household and the events of the play. Ms. Faridany is utterly believable in her characterization of Julia, and even easy to identify with in her anger and resentment at the loss of her childhood and her inability to reclaim her old room.

Ms. Maxwell and Mr. Stephens, as embodiments of the inexplicable fear that pervades the proceedings, are suitably restrained yet dynamic, ominous yet worthy of sympathy, kindness, and pity, from us and from Tobias and Agnes. These character portrayals are other-worldly yet entirely down-to-earth and realistic.

The six-member ensemble, meticulously, seamlessly directed by Ms. Mann, is intensely focused, in character and convincing. The relationships here are endlessly fascinating and thought-provoking, as this extraordinary cast artfully delivers both the dazzlingly eloquent surface and the terrifying depths of Mr. Albee’s play.

Mr. Albee, who was in the audience for last Friday night’s opening, explained, at the time of the last major revival of the play, in 1996, that A Delicate Balance “concerns — as it always has, in spite of early-on critical misunderstanding — the rigidity and ultimate paralysis which afflicts those who settle in too easily, waking up one day to discover that all the choices they have avoided no longer give them any freedom of choice, and that what choices they do have left are beside the point.” That message and the enduring power of this disturbing play and its troubled characters continue to resonate richly seventeen years later in Ms. Mann’s memorable production.

December 5, 2012

REPEAT THE PAST?: Jonathan (Jordan Adelson) visits his former lover Patricia (Rachel Saunders) after fifteen years, as he tries to understand and recover something he has lost, as an artist and human being, in Theatre Intime’s production of Donald Margulies “Sight Unseen” at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through December 8.

It’s about lost love, the role of the artist, and anti-Semitism. It’s about an identity crisis that strikes as middle-age approaches and brings with it the inevitable compromises of life.

Jonathan Waxman is a rising mega-star in the international art scene of twenty years ago. His controversial modern paintings are sold “sight unseen,” even before they are completed, to wealthy patrons in New York City and throughout the world. In Sight Unseen, Donald Margulies’ 1991 Off-Broadway hit, Jonathan, in London for the first overseas exhibition of his work, journeys out to the country to visit his former lover Patricia and her husband Nick.

Throughout the ensuing eight scenes of Sight Unseen, currently playing in an uneven, though at times luminous and engaging, production at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, Jonathan (Jordan Adelson) and Patricia (Rachel Saunders) seek resolution to a welter of interwoven issues, romantic, aesthetic, and personal. These include their abruptly-terminated relationship of fifteen years earlier, the artist’s role as a public figure in a commercial world, and disputes over anti-Semitism.

Patricia, now an expatriate and her British husband Nick (Peter Giovine) live a modest life in their cold farmhouse, pursuing their archeological explorations of Roman ruins. Jonathan comes upon his painting of Patricia, a gift to her, from 15 years earlier, now hanging prominently in Patricia and Nick’s house. Jonathan recognizes in that painting the inspiration and integrity that, amidst all his success and fame, he has lost. Patricia is still bitter over Jonathan’s rejection of her. Nick, socially awkward and hostile both to Jonathan and the art he creates, clashes with Jonathan over his relationship with Patricia and over the very nature of his artistic work.

The scenes jump forward and backwards in time, from the farmhouse in the present to an interview between Jonathan and a German journalist four days later in London, then back, 15 years to the break-up of Jonathan and Patricia’s relationship, and finally to the college painting studio where the relationship began. The fragmented chronology provides fascinating perspective on the relationship between Jonathan and Patricia, life compromises of both protagonists, and on Jonathan’s controversial evolution as an artist.

Under the direction of Princeton University junior Eric Traub, this Theatre Intime production of Sight Unseen effectively brings out much of Mr. Margulies’ sharp, provocative dialogue, his intriguingly complex characterizations and his troubling themes.

The four–member ensemble is generally well rehearsed, but an emergency session on projection and diction would be helpful. Ms. Saunders, when playing the settled, married, late-thirties Patricia, is so subdued that she is difficult to hear. Also problematic is Ms. Erin O’Brien’s German-accented, rapidly articulated dialogue with Jonathan, as she spars over his Jewishness, his commercialism, and his authenticity as an artist in the second scenes of both acts.

Ms. Saunders is at her best in the two powerful flashback scenes with Jonathan — their meeting in the painting studio at a New York college and their break-up soon after graduation, as Jonathan is mourning his mother’s death. Thoroughly convincing and in character in these scenes, Ms. Saunders offers a striking, warmly human stage presence and a worthy artist’s muse. It is not surprising that these undergraduate performers would have a less firm a grasp on the more ambiguous and disillusioned late thirties versions of these characters.

Mr. Adelson’s Jonathan is focused, articulate, and expressive in showing his range of emotions, from desire and confidence to frustration, regret and sadness, as he struggles in his quest to understand and reconnect with his past.

Mr. Giovine, as the ill at ease British archeologist, successfully portrays an eccentric, angry presence — resentful of Jonathan’s past relationship with Patricia and scornful of Jonathan’s artistic accomplishments. He becomes strongly outspoken and manifestly hostile when he goes on the attack in the second of two acts.

Ms. O’Brien presents the aggressive journalist, who puts Jonathan on the defensive, artistically and personally. Her complex interrogations, complete with heavy German accent, do need to be delivered more slowly and clearly.

Michaela Karis’s set design, with lighting by Laura Hildebrand, is efficient and successful in portraying the four different locales represented in the eight scenes — farmhouse, London art gallery, Jonathan’s family home in Brooklyn, and the college art studio. Mr. Traub has staged the action clearly and intelligently, with necessary scenery sliding on and off swiftly. A screen at far stage right with brief film footage and labels for dates and times helps to create the world of the play and clarify the shifts as the action moves back and forth between city and country, 1990s, and 1970s.

Despite frequent moments of humor, Sight Unseen is ultimately a poignantly sad story of loss. “You’re an artist! An artist has to experience the world!” Patricia exhorts Jonathan during their first romantic encounter, finally presented in the closing moments of the play. “How can you experience the world if you say ‘no’ to things you shouldn’t have to say ‘no’ to?!” Seventeen years later they may both have experienced the world. They may both be wiser. But the loss has been greater than the gain. Mr. Margulies and this Theatre Intime production of Sight Unseen invite their audiences to engage with these interesting characters in this exploration of their tangled lives and their uneasy world.

November 14, 2012

DEADLY DECEPTIONS: Terrorized by three con men in her Greenwich Village apartment, Susy (Sarah Cuneo, right) uses her blindness to advantage and teams up with her young neighbor Gloria (Anna Aaronson) to foil the villains’ plans, in Frederick Knott’s 1966 thriller “Wait Until Dark,” currently playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus.

If, after Halloween and Hurricane Sandy, you still have an appetite for breathtaking moments and frightening drama, for tense periods of waiting and surprisingly long stretches of darkness, then Frederick Knott’s classic 1966 thriller, Wait Until Dark, currently playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, might be just the show for you.

There is something reassuring about dealing with such matters in a fictional setting, in the confines of a theater, and murder mystery enthusiasts will especially enjoy this intricate, high-suspense thriller. Wait Until Dark starred Lee Remick and Robert Duvall in its original 374-performance Broadway run, then Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin in the acclaimed movie adaptation a year later (1967).

An ingenious set-up, some interesting character development, and no fewer than three formidable, contrasting and complementary villains here enrich the proceedings. The build-up to the central clash between a blind woman, aided by a young girl neighbor, and the ruthless con men looking for a mysterious doll filled with heroin is at times overly complex and confusing, at times lacking in verisimilitude. But the wild finale, when utter darkness levels the playing field for a duel between this blind woman and her adversary, provides abundant suspense and entertainment. The audience response of shocked terror was audible last Saturday night during the climactic scene, which, at least in the screen version, has been ranked tenth on Bravo’s list of 100 Scariest Movie Moments.

Under the thoughtful, capable direction of Princeton University sophomore Michael Pinsky, Intime’s production of Wait Until Dark delivers an interesting, engaging evening with what Mr. Pinsky describes in his director’s note as a challenging, “technically adventurous piece of theater.” The undergraduate cast is generally strong, especially so in the villain department.

Misha Semenov’s sturdy, functional, detailed set — complete with period refrigerator and telephone, photography equipment for the protagonist Susy’s husband Sam, a safe, Venetian blinds — along with Collin Stedman’s lighting design, sound by Ben Schaffer and props by Jack Moore, successfully creates the 1960s Greenwich Village basement apartment and brings all the requisite details together for fulfillment of the complex plot.

Sarah Cuneo, in the central role as Susy, projects both beauty and strength, vulnerability, and an intrepid spirit, as she gradually realizes she is being conned, then struggles to concoct and carry out her plan to outwit her ruthless adversaries. Believable throughout as the blind woman trapped and terrorized, Ms. Cuneo displays a wide range of emotions and readily wins the audience’s sympathies, despite occasional lack of clarity in action and word, especially during her most panicked moments.

Mark Walter as the icy cool Roat leads the criminal trio. In black leather jacket, with a chillingly sing-song voice and a smooth, detached, sinister demeanor, this psychopath commands the stage, and his two henchmen, with authority. From start to finish the character leaves no doubt of his deadly determination to get what he wants.

Cody O’Neil as a smooth-talking, charming Mike, and David Drew as the physically imposing, slow-witted Carlino are both convincing in joining the team of crooks looking to get rich by finding the heroin-stuffed doll, which is supposedly in the possession of Susy and her husband Sam. As Sam, absent during most of the terrifying proceedings, Mike Freyberger is adequate, though there is little development or three-dimensionality to the Susy-Sam marital relationship.

Anna Aaronson’s Gloria, the young girl neighbor from upstairs, contributes some humor and proves crucial to thwarting the villains’ plot, though the age stretch — Gloria was written to be nine years old, and Ms. Aaronson must be at least twice that — is problematic and confusing in distorting both tone and characterization here. Blake Edwards and Mitch Shellman provide effective support as patrolmen, arriving at Susy’s apartment in the final moments of the play.

Wait Until Dark and Dial M for Murder (1952) are Frederick Knott’s two masterpieces in the thriller genre. For carefully calculated plot twists and roller coaster rides of fear and intrigue, they are hard to beat.

October 3, 2012

MISMATCH OR MADE FOR EACH OTHER?: Doug (Brad Wilson) and Kayleen (Katherine ­Ortmeyer) find themselves drawn together through many calamities over the course of 30 years, in Theatre Intime’s production of Rajiv Joseph’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries” at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 6.

Never thought of vomiting together as a bonding experience? Never fancied a romantic date that consisted of touching each other’s wounds? Never thought of “gruesome” and “entertaining” together to describe a play you’d want to see? Well, there’s a first time for everything, and Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries (2009), in a captivating production opening Theatre Intime’s 2012-13 season, delivers many surprises.

Eight-year-old Doug and Kayleen meet for the first time in the school nurse’s office. In this scene titled “Age 8: Face Split Open,” Kayleen describes her stomach ache and Doug describes how he injured his face by riding his bike, Evel Knievel-style off the school roof. Kayleen, fascinated, wants to touch his wound, then picks pieces of gravel out of his hands.

The first of eight scenes centered on various injuries sustained by both characters over a thirty-year period, this childhood encounter sets the tone for the rest of the evening and the future relationship between Doug and Kathleen.

Accident-prone and self-destructive, both continue to hurt themselves in an astonishing variety of ways. Doug, seemingly driven by his unrequited love for Kayleen, blows out an eye with fireworks, gets his teeth knocked out in a fight, steps on a nail then breaks his leg while inspecting a damaged building, gets struck by lightning while on his roof, and falls off a telephone pole (“Maybe if I could climb to the top of this telephone pole in the rain at night, like the mast of a ship lost at sea, maybe I’ll see the shine of you, bringing me home again.”) Kayleen, who realizes her pain-based connection and at times even holds a healing power over Doug, is unable to requite his love. She suffers less dramatically but no less devastatingly by cutting herself — legs and stomach — and undergoing “about 25 medications” and psychiatric treatments.

Whether Kayleen and Doug are mismatched or made for each other never becomes clear, but their relationship remains loving, sensual, and unconsummated, full of mental and physical anguish on both sides, much more about pain than happiness or anything approaching conventional romance.

Yes, the play definitely lives up to its title, emphasis on “gruesome.” But this 90-minute, two-character show, skillfully and creatively directed by Princeton University junior Laura Gates and performed with style, focus, and commitment by senior Bradley Wilson and junior Katherine Ortmeyer makes for an entertaining evening.

Mr. Joseph’s dialogue is sharp, realistic, often funny and touching. Though Mr. Joseph, whose Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, provides little background beyond Kayleen’s broken home with a harsh father and absent mother, the characters here are richly engaging, intriguing, and surprisingly appealing and sympathetic.

Mr. Wilson’s Doug is charming in his recklessness, honesty, and boyish bravado. His love for Kathleen, manifested in such dramatic fashion, is never in doubt and never diminished as the scenes jump forwards and backwards in time through three decades. Ms. Ortmeyer’s Kathleen is more complex, also increasingly broken physically and mentally as the play progresses, but perhaps even more troubling than her counterpart in her inwardness, her inability to commit, her quiet self-destructiveness.

Despite occasional lines that are difficult to hear, Ms. Ortmeyer creates a rich three-dimensional character, and the relationship established here is fascinating, at times even heartwarming and amusing. The fact that even the vomit scene — the protagonists again in the nurse’s office at school, this time at age thirteen as a school dance is going on in the background (“Our throw up is all mixed together. You wanna see? So awesome.”) — is more sweetly comical than grotesque surely attests to the creative powers of playwright and performers.

Ms. Gates has staged the play with clarity and focus. The eight short scenes, titles for each written on an easel on stage left, move along smoothly, with original music by Mark Watter and Matt Seely helping to set the mood and bridge the gaps. The simple, flexible, functional set by Amy Gopinathan, lighting by Marissa Applegate, and realistic costuming by Annika Bennett are appropriate and on target. As the drama between Doug and Kayleen progresses, between scenes the actors remain on stage, Ms. Ortmeyer stage right, Mr. Wilson stage left, changing costumes and putting on make-up.

The actors’ preparations, sometimes elaborate as they “create” various wounds and transition from age eight through five-year increments to age thirty-eight, add a significant element to the production. The breaks between scenes, the titles and the non-chronological sequence of events, the appearance of the actors “behind the scenes,” all have a certain distancing effect for the audience. Rather than being invited to lose ourselves in the lives of Doug and Kayleen, we are constantly reminded that we are watching actors as they present these characters. Curiously though, watching the actors’ preparations between scenes also adds a certain intimacy, distancing us perhaps from the lives of Doug and Kayleen, but at the same time inviting us into the theatrical process as Mr. Wilson and Ms. Ortmeyer take on these personas, get into character to struggle with the lives and passions of these troubled souls.

Ms. Ortmeyer, Mr. Wilson, Ms. Gates, and the Theatre Intime company team up with the 38-year-old Mr. Joseph here to provide an eccentrically interesting evening, and the promise of worthy future theatrical adventures.

September 19, 2012

Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce in the world premiere of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang at McCarter Theatre Center. Directed by Nicholas Martin, the production, which is produced in association with Lincoln Center Theater, runs through October 14. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

When “Chekhovian”—sadness, regrets, introspection, frustration—meets “Durangian”—wild absurdities, astonishing eccentricities, anarchic comedy—the results turn out to be both moving and hilarious. Christopher Durang’s new play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which opened at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre last weekend, populates its contemporary Bucks County setting with a collection of characters loosely based on figures from the turn-of-the-century (1900) Russian playwright’s somber masterpieces.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is full of contemporary references, to its present-day setting and the world of pop culture, and at the same time imbued with Chekhovian nostalgia and memories of a kinder, gentler past, in this case the 1950s and ‘60s, of these characters’ and Mr. Durang’s youth.

The updating and geographical shift work well. Certain artists’ names become adjectives for a reason, something to do with timelessness and universality, as Emily Mann obviously realized four years ago in her creation of A Seagull in the Hamptons, a contemporary adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull (1896). Mr. Durang, now 63, describes in an interview how “a few years ago I was at a place in my life where a lot of Chekhov’s characters are, where they’re looking back and asking ‘did I take the right road?’, ‘oh, I didn’t do that and I should have,’ and ‘I didn’t go to Moscow, should I have?’” Mr. Durang had moved to a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which further brought to mind the world of Chekhov’s plays and his characters, who “are living in the country and their more glamorous relatives are off doing things out in the world while the people who are living at home feel like they haven’t had lives.”

The distinguished cast here, under the direction of Nicholas Martin, Durang veteran and former director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival and Boston’s Huntington Theatre, delivers with style and poignancy this hybrid of outrageous comedy and sad, moving family drama—“Chekhov in a blender,” as Mr. Durang describes it.

Mr. Durang has written several of the funniest plays of the past 40 years, from The Marriage of Bette and Boo (1973), Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (1979) and Beyond Therapy (1981) to Betty’s Summer Vacation (1999) and Miss Witherspoon (another McCarter premiere in 2005). Mr. Durang, less acerbic, a bit gentler in his satire and characterizations but no less hilarious than he was in his earlier work, is in excellent form here and this top-flight McCarter production serves the play brilliantly.

Three of the finest, and most celebrated, veteran comedic actors anywhere portray the protagonists here, three middle-aged siblings, given names out of Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters — Vanya (David Hyde Pierce), Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) and Masha (Sigourney Weaver) — because their professor parents were enthusiasts of community theater and Chekhov in particular.

Vanya and Sonia, brother and (adopted) sister, live in the old family farmhouse, beautifully rendered in David Korins’ meticulously detailed set. The action of the play takes place in the sunroom with stairs leading up to the second floor and upstage exit leading to the front door and other parts of the house. From the sunroom, characters can look out on a pond, as they eagerly await — still waiting hopefully at the end of the play — the appearance of an auspicious blue heron.

Their dull, often contentious, lives are interrupted by the arrival of their self-absorbed, movie star sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver), who has been gallivanting around the world being a celebrity. She arrives with her much younger stud boyfriend Spike (Billy Magnussen), a wannabe actor with a penchant for taking off his clothes and parading around in his underpants. She summarily announces — shades of Chekhov — “I’ve decided to sell the house.” Masha is not particularly sensitive to the needs of her siblings or of anyone but herself, but she is the only one making a living and paying the bills.

The histrionic cleaning lady Cassandra (Shalita Grant) appears with a colorful array of moderately reliable psychic powers, blood-curdling prophecies and deft voodoo techniques; and Nina (Genevieve Angelson), a young star-struck neighbor, drops in, to Masha’s chagrin, on invitation from Spike.

The principals go out to a local costume party — Masha is determined to commandeer all attention as Walt Disney’s Snow White and to assign all other roles for her siblings and friends, and the action continues through one evening and into the next day.

The six-member ensemble is wisely, shrewdly cast and brilliantly focused, individually and as an interrelated group, in the creation of these eccentric and diverse individuals.

Mr. Pierce, who made his Broadway debut right out of college in the original production of Beyond Therapy in 1982, creates a character like his namesake in Chekhov, but less anguished, more peaceful, hopeful and happy in his consignment to a quiet life of regrets and only the most modest pleasures. Mr. Pierce’s deadpan style and searingly funny comic gift (renown on Broadway, Off-Broadway, on film, and perhaps most memorably as Niles in Frasier on TV) serve him well here, as he helps to ground his more exuberant sisters and captures both the Chekhovian nostalgia and the Durangian hilarity. He explodes into a show-stopping final-act diatribe on the value of “shared memories” — all lost to younger generations of the twenty-first century. Remember those postage stamps you had to lick? Typewriters? Howdy Doody, The Ed Sullivan Show, Davy Crockett and coonskin caps, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Annette Funicello and The Mickey Mouse Show and Old Yeller, all now replaced by “video games, in some virtual reality, where we would kill policemen and prostitutes as if that was some sort of entertainment “?

As Spike, whose texting during the reading of Vanya’s play set off the declamatory monologue, observes, “Wow, what’s up with him? That was a major flip out.”

Ms. Nielsen’s Sonia provides another unforgettable characterization in her over-the-top, bi-polar miseries and rages and her comical body language and vocal histrionics, as she laments her spinsterhood and her doomed rivalry with her glamorous sister. Even Sonia gets her moment, however, in the second act, as her Maggie Smith-as-Evil Queen at the costume party wins her the modicum of attention and accompanying self-confidence she has so sadly missed in the previous fifty years of her life. Her next-day telephone conversation with a man she met at the costume party is a tour-de-force of Durangian humor combined with Chekhovian poignancy, as we laugh loudly then empathize fondly from moment to tense moment. Durang aficionados will happily recall Ms. Nielsen’s brilliant star turns in Betty’s Summer Vacation and Miss Witherspoon, along with a host of other distinguished stage and screen credits.

Ms. Weaver, in this part created especially for her by Mr. Durang, who has been a friend and often a collaborator since Yale School of Drama in the early 1970s, embodies the role of Masha with flair, obviously delighting in taking on this extravagantly caricatured version of herself. Ms. Weaver (star in, among many other stage and screen appearances, Alien, Ghostbusters, Working Girl, Gorillas in the Mist, Avatar and the upcoming Vamps, in which she plays a vampire) delivers all the right moves to create this ultimate aging prima donna who has been gallivanting around the world. The character does appear as a one-dimensional stereotype, all surface, difficult to identify with, until late in the play when her misfortune — and the fact that she is contemplating a grandmother role in her next movie — brings her down to earth with a certain heartwarming humanity.

The three supporting characters are far from minor. Ms. Grant’s Cassandra, not Chekhovian but straight out of Greek mythology, injects a significant dose of adrenalin into the proceedings with her ominous predictions and her mystical, sassy, high-energy interactions with the main characters. Mr. Magnussen’s sexually charged, narcissistic Spike is another extreme stereotype and one from yet another dimension — certainly out of place in rural Bucks County or Chekhov’s world or amongst any adults, Masha excepted, over the age of 30. Mr. Magnussen makes the most of Spike’s incongruity in this setting to deliver a number of rich comedic moments.

As Nina — more Chekhovian echoes — the youthful Ms. Angelson presents an appealing, sincere and idealistic presence, and more thought-provoking contrast to illuminate the other extravagant figures in this play.

Because of the extensive allusions to Chekhov and also to popular culture of the past sixty years, the best audience for this play, which will move on from McCarter to Lincoln Center at the end of October, would undoubtedly be in Mr. Durang’s late middle-aged age group and preferably familiar with Chekhov’s Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and Cherry Orchard. But the good news is, even if you don’t qualify on one or both of these scores and even though you might miss some of the jokes, there is still plenty going on in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Chekhov and Durang, along with Mr. Martin and his wonderful cast, provide a hilarious, lively, entertaining evening for all.

Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike will run through October 14 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. For tickets, show times and further information, call 609-258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.

August 8, 2012

COURTSHIP AND CONFLICT: Lili (Sarah Paton) and Nick (Andrew Massey) meet and fall in love — it’s 1960, summertime, a lake in the Catskills — but that’s just the beginning of their problems in Princeton Summer Theater’s season finale, Richard Greenberg’s melancholy comedy “The American Plan,” playing at The Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through August 12.

In the closing moments of Princeton Summer Theater’s (PST) moving, captivating production of The American Plan, Lili and Nick look back on a romantic relationship that could have been and recall the words of a lullaby that Lili’s mother Eva used to sing: “Happiness exists, but it’s for other people.”

Those words capture the tone of this play and the worldview that it presents. Under the intelligent, inspired direction of Daniel Rattner, The American Plan (1990) by Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out, 2003) provides a multi-layered, beautifully designed finale to Princeton Summer Theater’s outstanding 2012 season.

Set in 1960 at a summer house in the Catskills, The American Plan takes place in a world delicately balanced between hopes and fears of past and future. Her transistor radio plays Bobby Darin’s “Somewhere Beyond the Sea,” as the troubled, 20-year-old Lili (Sarah Paton) dreams of a prince who will come to carry her away from her humdrum, privileged life and her domineering mother.

Right on schedule, as the lights rise on the opening scene, Nick (Andrew Massey), handsome WASP interloper in this Jewish enclave, looking “like nothing ever happened to you,” emerges from the lake where he has been swimming and greets Lili. She is reading on the patio of their house across the lake from the Catskills resort where Nick is staying. A writer and aspiring architect who dreams of creating a new city, Nick describes to Lili “the American Plan” (a hotel package deal that includes three meals a day, but in Nick’s mind and in the author’s title of the play, a metaphor for a disturbed, self-indulgent slice of mid-20th century American society): “What Americans live like that? What Americans eat like this? The breakfasts and the lunches and the dinners and the coffees and the teas and the snacks and the hardly-any-exercise in-between…”

All five characters in this play are outcasts, misfits in a world on the cusp of change. Lili’s mother Eva (Maeve Brady), a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, a wealthy widow with her Central Park West apartment and her summer house in the Catskills, looks down on the Jewish resort community and views life with pessimism and suspicion. “The world has a wish for you,” she warns her daughter, “and it’s never good.” Two supporting characters, Olivia (Miyuki Miyagi), Eva and Lili’s maid and caretaker, and Gil (Evan Thompson), who suddenly appears in the second of two acts, are also set apart from the mainstream of society.

As the plot advances, Nick and Lili’s relationship develops, and complications proliferate. Lili is deceitful, bitter and acerbic, edgy and unstable, subject to panic attacks, desperate to find romance and escape from her mother’s tyrannical control, yet inextricably attached and dependent. Nick also hides truths about his life, which Eva relentlessly proceeds to uncover. This prince is not exactly what he first appears to be.

The chemistry between Lili and Nick is strong, the love is apparent, the romance and the possibilities for happiness are rich and promising. But the vicissitudes of life, the workings of the human psyche and well-intentioned (or not) interventions by Eva and others ensure that this is not to be the fairy tale story that Lili and Nick envision.

PST’s polished, intelligent production brings out the nuances in these complex relationships. Mr. Rattner’s pacing moves the plot along effectively, and slows down, particularly as the lights linger at the end of each scene, to engage the audience in the troubled thoughts and yearnings of these struggling characters. Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set and Alex Mannix’s delicate, evocative lighting create the mood of this world with its pensive inhabitants and its mix of romance and melancholy.

The set — wicker patio furniture, a weathered Adirondack chair, greying boards (like a wharf, or the side of a beach house) for the backdrop — reinforces the wistful mood of the play. A clever, creative transformation for the final scene moves to Eva and Lili’s dark, well-appointed New York apartment ten years later, with political protests raging outside; on the back wall a large flag made of faded jeans stitched together signifies a new phase in the history of the country and in the lives of the play’s protagonists. Production values here and throughout the PST season have been thoroughly professional, first-rate.

As the romantic couple at the play’s core, Ms. Paton and Mr. Massey are appealing and strikingly credible. Both young actors are experienced members of the PST Company, have starred in previous shows this summer, and display significant versatility here in progressing through the many mood shifts of these two characters. From the mannerisms of the attitudinal, sharp-tongued girl of the opening scenes to the more serious and mature adult of the later scenes, Ms. Paton’s Lili grows increasingly convincing and sympathetic. Mr. Massey is charming and conflicted — in character and believable from start to finish. It is not hard to see why these two would quickly fall in love with each other, and why that passionate attachment would cause endless problems for each.

Ms. Brady’s domineering maternal presence as Eva is a strong characterization, unquestionably capable of commanding the stage and the other figures in the play — another credible portrayal despite what seems like a possibly excessive fifty-year age stretch. Ms. Brady’s German accent is effective, but occasionally needs to be clearer in order to communicate this character’s many clever and caustic observations.

Ms. Miyagi and Mr. Thompson provide intelligent, skillful support, detailed and on target in their three-dimensional character delineations.

As director of this production and artistic director of Princeton Summer Theater 2012, Daniel Rattner observes in his program note, “The American Plan is a fitting end to our season because it, somewhat literally, explores what happens at summer’s end — when we are forced to leave a time that feels idle and promising and return to the real world, with its … constant complications.” Fitting, indeed, with its elegiac, end-of-summer shadows and its thought-provoking studies in character and relationships — it’s a worthy conclusion to a rewarding, diverse, and impressively successful 2012 season.

July 25, 2012

AT HER PEAK: Ballerina Cynthia Gregory, shown here as Odile, the black swan in “Swan Lake,” during her career with American Ballet Theatre.

In a classroom at the Princeton Dance and Theatre Studio in Forrestal Village, six young men take their places and wait for music from the ballet Raymonda to begin. Sitting in front of them with her back to the mirror is a woman who was dancing “Raymonda” — and just about every other ballet in the classical repertory — before they were born.

Watching Cynthia Gregory demonstrate how to use a plié, or deep knee bend, to add spring to a jump, or how to open the arms into a more authoritative pose, it seems as if she might have performed these movements yesterday. Yet it has been two decades since this famous ballerina retired from dancing after a stellar, 26-year career with American Ballet Theatre (ABT).

These days, Ms. Gregory spends much of her time coaching younger generations of dancers. For the past several years, she has traveled to Princeton from her home in Las Vegas to Princeton Dance and Theatre Studio’s annual Summer Intensive. For one week, she works with the students on the finer points of performance. The 48 students in this year’s program come from several states and Guatemala. In addition to Ms. Gregory, they studied this summer with former ballerinas Susan Jaffe and Kyra Nichols; and with Roy Kaiser, who is artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet. The students will give an end-of-term performance Friday, July 27, at 1 p.m. at The Hun School Auditorium. Tickets are $10.

“I like to coach, rather than teach. There are so many better teachers than me,” Ms. Gregory says. “I like to work on the art of dance rather than the nuts and bolts. And they already know what they’re doing when I get here, so I can work on the finer points with them. The students here are very strong. There are no watered-down versions of anything. They’re learning the real thing.”

For Risa Kaplowitz, co-founder of the school, hosting Ms. Gregory each summer is a thrill for the students, and for her. “This is Cynthia’s fourth or fifth time at PDT, and I am still in awe of what she offers the students,” she says. “Her coaching is filled with positive energy and her simple explanations for difficult steps can make such a big difference in how a dancer executes them. Most of all, she gives the variations context and inspires the students to dance them with joy.”

A much younger-looking 66, Ms. Gregory has a warm smile and open manner that seem to put the dancers immediately at ease. She is quick to offer encouragement while pushing her charges to work harder and reach for a level that transcends technique and athleticism.

“The level of technique today is fabulous. It’s amazing,” she says, speaking of ABT, where she spent her career. “But the general feeling is more bravura than drama. Somehow, the heart is gone. We didn’t have that level of technique, but we had something else. I try to pass along what I learned from people like Agnes de Mille, whom I loved. She taught me how to be a real person on stage. I tell the dancers today to be real with their gestures, to be themselves. That translates to the audience.”

De Mille is only one of the renowned choreographers with whom Ms. Gregory worked during her long career. Born in Los Angeles, she began studying ballet as a small child. She managed to get herself into a class that George Balanchine was teaching when she was only 13. The great choreographer and co-founder of the New York City Ballet was impressed and invited her to come study in New York, but she was too young.

A year later, though, she was accepted into the San Francisco Ballet as an apprentice. Her parents sold their home and business and the family moved to San Francisco, where Ms. Gregory thrived. She stayed with the ballet company for four-and-a-half years before deciding to make the move to New York. Since Mr. Balanchine had encouraged her, she expected to join his company, where abstract ballets tend to dominate the repertory.

“But I saw a performance by ABT, and I set my heart on that,” she says. “It was drama. I like to tell a story, and that’s what they were doing. It’s not that I don’t love the Balanchine repertory; I do. But the story ballets suited me best.”

ABT had Giselle and La Sylphide in its repertory when Ms. Gregory joined. Over the years, more full-length classics and ballets by Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins, and other choreographers were added. “I just fell in love with all of those ballets. They kept adding more, every year or two,” Ms. Gregory says. “I could really immerse myself in the roles.”

While drama was her forte, Ms. Gregory was also a formidable technician. She was known for her ability to balance en pointe longer than just about any other dancer, and her fans loved her for it.

She especially enjoyed working with Mr. Robbins, performing his ballet Other Dances with Alexander Godunov and Kevin McKenzie, now ABT’s artistic director. “He showed another side of me,” she says of the choreographer. “A lot of people never thought of me in that way.” Mr. Robbins was her favorite choreographer. But he was a tough taskmaster. “He made you do things over and over, and I get worse as I do things over and over,” she says. “Twyla [Tharp] was like that, too.”

Ms. Gregory exited ABT during the period that Mikhail Baryshnikov was artistic director. The Russian superstar favored younger dancers. Only in her mid-thirties, which is considered a dancer’s prime, Ms. Gregory chose to bow out. “I didn’t thrive under him, so I started doing guest performances,” she says, tactfully. “I did get to dance with him once, in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, and that was great. But I needed to move on.”

When Ms. Gregory ended her dancing career a few years later, she was ready. “I don’t miss it,” she says. “I was really completely fulfilled.”

She has been divorced twice and widowed once. Ms. Gregory raised her son, now 24, in Greenwich, Connecticut. She moved a few years ago to Las Vegas, where she is an artistic advisor with the Nevada Ballet Theatre. She coaches for that company and elsewhere.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” she says, flashing her radiant smile. “I had no major injuries. I got to  work with the most amazing choreographers in the world. And now I get to pass it on.”

July 12, 2012

MARITAL MANIPULATIONS: Manningham (Evan Thompson) subtly deceives his wife (Sarah Paton) into thinking she is going insane, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Patrick Hamilton’s “Gaslight” (1938), playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through July 15.

A creative work whose title becomes a part of the common cultural vocabulary must strike a resonant chord in our social and psychological worlds, and the indomitable Princeton Summer Theater’s (PST) polished, intelligent production of Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 Gaslight presents a vibrant case in point. Our society has recently been struggling to come to terms with the complex psychological ramifications and destructive effects of bullying. “Gaslighting” — a power play which involves manipulating the victim into doubting his or her memory and perceptions — is certainly one of the most insidious forms of that kind of psychological abuse. Unsurprisingly, despite a certain quaint predictability and Victorian-style domestic familiarity, this classic melodrama maintains its power to engage and intrigue audiences almost 75 years after its original production.

Most famous is its 1944 movie version directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten and an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury in her screen debut, Gaslight, set in London in the 1880s, is the story of a villainous husband and his calculating emotional and psychological torture of his wife, as he drives her to the brink of insanity.

Under the guise of the most caring and kindly paternalism in this traditional Victorian upper-middle class household, he deceives her into believing that she is misplacing valuable objects, neglecting her responsibilities as dutiful wife, and gradually losing her mind in forgetfulness. One of his ruses that make his wife question her senses and sanity is his clandestine raising and lowering of the gas lamps that give the play its title and light the couple’s Victorian living room. The Victorian world and male-dominated marriages of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) come to mind, as does the victimized wife consigned to a 1860s mental institution in Emily Mann’s Mrs. Packard (2007).

The PST cast of five principals, all undergraduates or recent college graduates, under the direction of Princeton English and theater professor R.N. Sandberg, is excellent — credible and engaging in making significant character stretches to portray this curious assemblage of characters from a distant world.

In the central Ingrid Bergman role of the beleaguered wife Bella, Sarah Paton is convincing and sympathetic. She portrays a fluctuating fragility that shifts rapidly and credibly from happiness in response to her husband’s feigned affections to desperation and manic hysteria in the face of her fears and desperation in confronting what she is led to believe is her declining mental state. This overly dependent, neurotic stereotype of a Victorian wife is certainly a ripe subject for feminist scrutiny, as is her misogynist husband, though suspense and melodrama are Mr. Hamilton’s priorities rather than social commentary here.

Evan Thompson as Jack Manningham takes on the villain’s role with spirit and poise. His proud posture, thinly veiled insincerity, roguish demeanor, sexist commentary, and inappropriately suggestive overtures to the maid (Ariel Sibert) lucidly reveal his duplicity to the audience, if not to his wife, early on in the play. The audience, realizing Jack’s machinations, then identifying with Bella as she first spirals into distress and fear, then gradually begins to realize her husband’s treachery, enjoy watching as husband and wife match wits in mortal combat.

Ms. Sibert’s impertinent Nancy exudes the brazen spirit and style of the saucy, lascivious maid, and Jack’s flirtations with her become part of his psychological abuse of his wife, as the two women compete for his attentions.

As the elderly house servant Elizabeth, Maeve Brady makes an impressive stretch in age and creates a memorable character, watching closely the suspicious actions of her master and the alarming behavior of her mistress and helping in the end to resolve the tangled plot. Andrew Massey’s avuncular, witty, and determined detective contributes irony and dark humor to the proceedings, eventually winning Bella’s trust and allegiance in opposing the treacherous husband and sorting out his complex schemes and actions. Mr. Massey creates a quirky, believable, and likeable three-dimensional character.

Jeffrey Van Velsor, professional local set designer, in collaboration with talented lighting designer Alex Mannix, has successfully created the Manningham’s living room and this ponderous world of Victorian domestic life. In sharp, welcome contrast to the multiple settings of the 1944 movie version, the audience here stays focused in the single, darkly paneled, increasingly claustrophobic room. As the plot develops throughout the evening, the single setting intensifies the suspense and fear that the audience shares with the panicked Bella. “Gaslight” sconces on the wall further enhance the atmosphere and admirably serve the plot.

Mr. Sandberg has directed with skill and careful attention to detail. The action, even the rather long first-act exposition and set-up, moves swiftly, drawing the audience into this eerie world of intrigue and drama. The performers are well rehearsed and communicate the complexities of this tale with clarity and conviction. Ben Schaffer’s expert technical direction and period costuming by Julia Bumke and Ms. Sibert are also on-target and effective.

In commenting on Gaslight, Mr. Hamilton, who wrote several popular psychological dramas and novels in the first half of the twentieth century, once remarked, “It has a sort of genuineness in its very bogusness — it is sincere good fun theater.” Princeton Summer Theater makes the most here of Mr. Hamilton’s fascination with a rich psychological struggle and his fine sensitivity to the playwright’s art of keeping audiences on the edges of their seats.

May 16, 2012

PLAYWRIGHT IN DISTRESS: Stranded with two abandoned children (Hope Springer, left, and Matthew Kuenne) in a strange house and a hostile environment, Mundie (Paul Gross) tries to make progress on his new screenplay in the world premiere of John Guare’s “Are You There, McPhee?” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 3. (Photo by Michal Daniel)

At a New York City party the guests are telling stories in the opening scene of John Guare’s new play Are You There, McPhee? at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Edmund “Mundie” Gowery, a playwright, urges the group to gather round for his “horror story” of abandoned children, a dead mother, a porn ring, at least two sea monsters (11-pound lobsters) and Walt Disney. Mundie’s story, which he both narrates and re-lives, takes him from the present back to 1975, summer of “Jaws” (blockbuster movie and book), as he, at the age of 35, becomes embroiled in a tangled series of troubling, life-defining incidents — alternately absurd, horrific, and romantic — on the island of Nantucket.

In addition to the above, this two-and-three-quarter-hour surrealistic comedy includes dozens of different characters, all played by a versatile cast of 12; a slew of movie allusions and children’s literature references; repeated appearances by marionettes depicting the Argentine writer Borges, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, and Mundie himself; a diamond-stuffed lobster; a heart literally turning to gold; movie deals with Disney and Roman Polanski; a living room in the style of a Magritte painting, with a train coming out of the fireplace; literary references to Herman Melville, Samuel Beckett, Dr. Seuss, Primo Levi, and others; and frequent visitors from the past dredged up from Mundie’s creative memory.

This much plotting and literary, cinematic, artistic, and dramatic material can become daunting for audiences struggling just to keep track of what’s going on. The humor is clever, surprising and richly absurd. The distinguished cast is excellent, led by the dynamic, humorous, and appealing Paul Gross (Due South, Slings and Arrows) as Mundie. The talented Sam Buntrock (Travesties at McCarter last month and a widely acclaimed production of Sunday in the Park with George in London in 2006 and on Broadway in 2008) directs with imagination and finesse, teaming up brilliantly again with set and costume designer David Farley (Travesties, Sunday in the Park).

Present here are qualities that have established Mr. Guare (House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation) as one of the great American playwrights of the past 40 years: wildly imaginative plotting, detailed and sympathetic characterizations, hilarious comedy, striking and moving portrayals of deeply flawed men and women trying to make human connections, besieged in a forbidding environment. But Are You There, McPhee? needs an editor. Two-thirds of the current plot, fewer characters, and a running time much closer to two than three hours would suffice. The audience could catch its breath, take time to enjoy the humor rather than struggling constantly to follow the plot, and establish the kind of close ties with the main character that would draw us in to care more about his amusing, moving, sometimes ridiculous plight.

As Mundie’s story begins, the characters from his past appear and the layers of dark complexity accumulate. Lighting by Ken Billington and set shifts assist in transporting Mundie and the audience back to 1975. Mundie, who owns a Nantucket rental house he has never seen, receives an alarming phone call from the Nantucket police. They have arrested his tenants for running a child pornography ring. With Mundie’s first love interest departing for Buenos Aires with her husband, Mundie’s lawyer, and his second girlfriend demanding Mundie’s presence at a social event that evening, Mundie plans to fly to Nantucket for the day.

The literary background develops. Mundie reads Borges stories on the plane, and the famous writer appears in the form of a life-sized puppet to offer words of wisdom. Everybody else seems to be reading Jaws or going to the movie, as ominous “Jaws” sound effects complement the action here. Mundie’s Nantucket house had once been the home of a famous author of the “Elsie and Wally” books for children.

Soon after arriving in Nantucket, Mundie undergoes a police interrogation concerning his criminal tenants, and finds that everyone he meets recently acted in a local amateur production of his play, Internal Structure of Stars. They are all still furious that Mundie declined an invitation to attend a performance, but more than ready to offer dramatic samplings of their best lines.

Somehow Mundie encounters a lobster fisherman named McPhee. Some sort of alter ego for Mundie, he also had a part in the play, has a married girlfriend with the same name as Mundie’s and is also reading Borges. McPhee bestows upon him a large trash can and a cooler containing two huge lobsters.

And somehow McPhee directs Mundie to a house where Peter and Wendy are housesitting and taking care of a young boy, Poe, and girl, Lilac, and that’s where the plot really gets going, as we gradually find out details about the children’s mother, the daughter of the writer who lived in the house Mundie now owns, and the father, who directed Mundie’s play and aspires to greater achievements in Hollywood.

Mundie finds out he has a deadline to write a screenplay for Roman Polanski and looks forward to a rapid departure back to New York, but suddenly finds himself responsible for the two mischievous children who seem to have been abandoned by their parents and by Peter and Wendy.

This is just the first half, and this description barely scratches the surface. Is this Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw updated, in double time and on steroids? Much of the dialogue and action is very funny, and the excellent cast plays a colorful and entertaining array of characters: John Behlmann (McPhee), Gideon Banner (Peter), Jeremy Bobb (the lawyer), Molly Camp (Wendy), Patrick Carroll (the cop), Alicia Goranson (Mundie’s girlfriend), Matthew Kuenne and Hope Springer (the children), Jenn Lynn (daughter of the famous children’s book author), Danny Mastrogiorgio (the children’s father), and Luisa Strus (the children’s aunt) — all except for Mr. Gross’ Mundie and the children, taking on multiple additional challenging roles.

Just before intermission, after more than an hour and a half of intense exposition and plotting, Mundie looks up at the audience and tells us: “You need a break.” Despite the superb production and the wealth of great comedic and dramatic material, he’s right. Less would be more.

April 25, 2012
Theater Rev

“THIS IS JUST A TEST”: (left to right) Archie (Chris Doubet), Jamie (Catherine Cohen), Ted (Adam Stasiw), Melanie (Julia Phillips), and Chris (Jordan Adelson), with the proctor (Jake Robertson) in the background, endure the horrors of the SAT test, just one of the many ordeals they undergo in “Admissions: The Musical,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 28.

Admissions: The Musical

“Please somebody out there. Won’t you let us in?” Anybody who has participated recently in the college admissions rat race or who looks forward to that experience in the near future or who can remember college admissions traumas of long ago can relate to Admissions: The Musical, written, directed and performed by Princeton University undergraduates.

The college adviser interview, the application essay (“500 words or less”), the SAT tests, the strained relationships and shattered dreams of high school senior year, the alumni interview and the long-awaited decision letter — all come under the scrutiny of this often funny, sharply satiric, sometimes poignant musical comedy.

Sporadically brilliant, tuneful, and entertaining throughout, Admissions is the creation of experienced Princeton Triangle Show writers Dan Abromowitz, Clayton Raithel, and Nora Sullivan, with skillful, focused, purposeful direction by J.T. Glaze. A collaborative effort of Theatre Intime and the Princeton University Players, the show features a cast of five principals plus five versatile ensemble members, a pit orchestra of four under the direction of Kevin Laskey, and eleven different musical numbers in two acts spanning two hours, including an intermission.

The music — mostly rock or ballad numbers, with a traditional musical comedy quality — is appealing throughout, as the lyrics range from the mundane to the highly clever and witty. The tone of the show also ranges widely, from outrageously campy and absurd to serious, sentimental, and moving. The evening is enjoyable, and the accomplishments of these talented writers, performers, and producers are admirable — uneven but admirable.

From the first guidance counselor college meeting to the fateful opening of the college decision letter, the plot spans most of a year at Salmon P. Chase High School for five seniors: Ted (Adam Stasiw), Melanie (Julia Phillips), Jamie (Catherine Cohen), Chris (Jordan Adelson) and Archie (Chris Doubet). From “Senior year’s going to be amazing,” to “All joy has been crushed out of me,” this group lives through the ups and downs of the college application and admission process.

Chris, an athlete, and Jamie, an academic star, have been a couple since freshmen year. They can’t imagine being apart, and the fact that Chris will never get into the colleges Jamie is applying to brings their lives to a crisis point. Mr. Adelson and Ms. Cohen develop this relationship with intensity, credibility and humor, as the two teenagers struggle to stay together against the odds. They blend vocal strength with on-target characterizations in a couple of duets, “The Future Is Ours” in the first act (reprised with a twist in the second act) and “Reasons to Stay” in the second act.

Melanie, a singer and stressed-out music conservatory applicant, is suffering the pressures of preparing for auditions. Ms. Phillips’ Melanie, putting her life on hold, is sympathetic in her attempts to understand herself and her dreams in the face of the travails of college admissions. She sings a memorable counterpoint duet “Pass You By,” (“Don’t Let the Year Pass You By”) with Ted early in the evening, then comes to an epiphany near the end of the evening in a strong solo piece where she realizes, “That was my dream, but now it’s not.”

Mr. Stasiw’s Ted provides first-rate vocal skills, a charismatic presence, and a healthy contrasting perspective to the group, as he opts out of the admissions competition and decides to work and travel after high school.

The most tortured character of all, Archie is from a University of Pennsylvania family, but he doesn’t get in. As the first act ends, Mr. Doubet’s Archie tries to convince himself that “I’m Okay,” but with parents like his (Alexis Kleinman and Adam Mastroianni), hilariously over-the-top caricatures of the obsessive mother and father, his road to college will not be smooth.

In addition to the over-bearing parents, Mr. Mastroianni and Ms. Kleinman, along with Jake Robertson, Amy Solomon, and Chris Murphy take on a number of colorful roles, from guidance counselors, teachers, and high school students, to admissions officers and alumni interviewers. Mr. Mastroianni, Ms. Solomon, and Mr. Murphy even don the appropriate wigs and costumes to appear as Beethoven, Mozart, and Georges Bizet to participate in one of Melanie’s tortured dreams.

The ensemble is well rehearsed and directed, switching seamlessly among a variety of roles, and providing consistently focused, high-energy support for the five principals. Of the five leads, Mr. Stasiw and Mr. Adelson stand out in displaying vocal and dramatic talents as they create their vivid convincing characters.

Alex Pimentel’s flexible unit set, with blue and green blocks of various sizes on the main part of the stage and the four-piece orchestra pit above at upstage center, works efficiently and effectively in staging the numerous rapidly-moving scenes of the show in the close quarters of the Intime performance area. Stage right serves as Archie’s family dining room, and the far stage left area provides the forum for a series of humorous monologue parodies in which students deliver reflective personal excerpts from their college application essays.

Expert lighting by Alex Kasdin uses a rich variety of colors on the cyclorama wall to vary the mood and deftly delineates the shifts in scene and tone throughout the show.

The pit orchestra is excellent, and Mr. Glaze has directed the show with a sure hand, staging the action smoothly and clearly, balancing orchestra and voices and keeping the pace moving throughout the many different scenes from start to finish. Diction and projection are less than perfect, with lines, either sung or spoken, occasionally not clear. Choreography by Mr. Glaze and Alison Goldblatt is generally unremarkable, but complements the proceedings successfully.

As the 2012 college admissions extravaganza winds down, acceptance and rejection letters have been opened and final choices have been made or are imminent; College Admissions: the Musical offers a refreshingly light-hearted perspective on the whole ordeal. The satire is delightfully trenchant, the humor is mostly sharp and on target, the music is pleasing, and the PUP/Theatre Intime premiere production provides an enjoyable evening.

“Admissions” will run for one more weekend, April 26-28, at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursday and Saturday and at 8 and 11:59 p.m. on Friday, April 27. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.princeton.edu/utickets for information.

April 4, 2012

WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?: Amanda (Maeli Goren) and Elyot (Evan Thompson) are back together again after marriage, divorce, rekindled relationship, and so many skirmishes in between, in Theatre Intime’s production of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” at the Murray Dodge Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 7.

Love, marriage, divorce, remarriage, and repeat — Noel Coward’s 1930 masterpiece of witty repartee and stylish, high society British humor, seems a long way removed from life in the 21st century, but Private Lives, playing in an accomplished Theatre Intime production, retains its wise perspectives on the necessity and impossibility of love and its power to entertain contemporary audiences.

It’s the story of Elyot (Evan Thompson) and Amanda (Maeli Goren), who, after being divorced for five years, find themselves honeymooning with new spouses in adjoining rooms in the same French hotel. The first of three acts takes place on the hotel terrace, as the surprised Elyot and Amanda gradually discover each other’s presence, and quickly realize that they can’t live without each other. They decide to leave their new partners and escape to Paris. Victor (Tadesh Inagaki) and Sybil (Bits Sola), the abandoned spouses, join forces and follow Elyot and Amanda to Paris, where the tumultuously romantic rollercoaster ride of the last two acts ensues in Amanda’s apartment.

Shockingly risqué in its time, the plot, despite the cleverness and rich ironies of the opening scene, is paper thin, and the four main characters, though mostly realistic, are barely three-dimensional, with no backgrounds, employment, family, or interests outside the necessities of the romantic plot. But the central relationship is fascinatingly, frustratingly paradoxical in its volatility, its lust, its abuses — both physical and psychological — and its impossible inevitability.

“I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives,” Amanda tells her confused new husband in the first act. “It all depends on a combination of circumstances. If all the various cosmic thingummys fuse at the same moment, and the right spark is struck, there’s no knowing what one mightn’t do. That was the trouble with Elyot and me, we were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle.”

This feast of Cowardian wit is full of froth, but all that witty badinage, the sharing of a certain flippancy, the refusal — in striking contrast to the sober attitudes of their more mundane counterparts — to take life too seriously, constitutes the essence of Elyot and Amanda’s relationship. This is the lost art of conversation, and — save Shakespeare, Shaw, Wilde, and maybe Tom Stoppard — no one is more artful in this rarefied realm than Noel Coward (Hay Fever, 1925, Blithe Spirit, 1941). Coward wrote Private Lives in four days, then went on to play the role of Elyot, with Gertrude Lawrence and Laurence Olivier, in subsequent successful London and New York runs in 1930-31. It has been revived in the West End and on Broadway many times since.

Mr. Thompson’s Elyot is suitably dashing, high-energy, and refined. He makes the ten-year character stretch with credibility and carries off the emotional requisites of the role — from suave sophistication to exasperation and hysteria to deep affection — with style and commitment.

Ms. Goren’s Amanda, “jagged with sophistication,” is a worthy counterpart, alternately alluring and attacking, romantic and rebellious. Both leads are thoroughly, convincingly in character, but suffer occasional diction lapses. The British-accented, rapid-fire wit occasionally speeds by too rapidly for comprehension, and it’s all too clever and entertaining to allow a single line to get lost.

Mr. Inagaki as the somewhat pompous, buttoned-up new husband to Amanda, and Ms. Sola as a whiny, needy young bride to Elyot are both excellent, on target in their characterizations, and clear and direct in word and action. They serve as effectively convincing, down-to-earth foils to the central duo. As Louise the French maid, Amy Gopinathan provides a timely, deftly humorous walk-on in the third act — a glimmer of perspective from the real world on these eccentric, upper-crust lovers.

Princeton University junior Savannah Hankinson has directed her young — all freshmen and sophomores — cast with intelligence and understanding. The action moves swiftly, with just one intermission, between acts one and two, and a short pause between acts two and three, and the total running time comes in at less than two hours. The staging, including some passionate brawling and physical combat to complement the verbal sparring, is clear and economical.

Michaela Karis’s simple, elegant, symmetrical set designs, enhanced by Laura Hildebrand’s nuanced lighting, effectively reflect the rarefied realm of the play. Sophie Brown’s costumes, a rich array of upscale outfits, including shimmering evening gowns for the ladies and formal wear for the gentlemen, enhance the creation of these characters and their world.

“Selfishness, cruelty, hatred, possessiveness, petty jealousy. All those qualities came out in us just because we loved each other,” Amanda reflects in act one, and she and Elyot agree, “To hell with love,” just before deciding to run off to begin the cycle again. Noel Coward’s Private Lives paints an intriguing portrait of these desperately loving, desperately tortured fools for love, along with some of the cleverest romantic repartee ever written, all brought to life in this fine Theatre Intime production.

March 21, 2012

Tom Stoppard’s Travesties opened in London in 1974, came to the United States and won both Tony and N.Y. Drama Critics Circle Awards for Best Play in 1976 and is currently at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre in a dazzling production directed by Sam Buntrock. It is a wildly extravagant intellectual feast.

“I want to marry the play of ideas to farce,” Mr. Stoppard explained. “Now that may be like eating steak tartare with chocolate sauce, but that’s the way it comes out. Everyone will have to decide for himself whether the seriousness is doomed or redeemed by the frivolity.”

It is Zurich in 1917, during the First World War, with Lenin preparing to return to Russia to lead the Russian revolution, James Joyce is in the process of writing Ulysses, and Dadaist Tristan Tzara is challenging the world of European art. The ideas come thick and fast here, though a constant barrage of puns, limericks, and word play, a smattering of song and dance and recurrent reminders of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest might, as Stoppard suggests, be smothering the seriousness of those ideas in chocolate sauce.

With so many historical, artistic, and literary allusions, this tour de force of hyperactive wit provides extraordinary riches for the mind. In this vein of Wildean farce and George Bernard Shaw’s comedies of manners and ideas, Mr. Stoppard has produced an impressive array of masterpieces over the past five decades, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1968) through The Real Thing(1982), Arcadia(1993), Coast of Utopia (2007) and many more. Nowhere, however, do the farce, allusions and intellectual ideas spin more wildly over the top than they do here in the pyrotechnics of Travesties.

Mr. Stoppard’s feat of relentless verbal dexterity, extraordinarily clever plotting to get Lenin, Joyce, and Tzara together through the reminiscences of a minor consular official, Henry Carr, who narrates the play, all in a spoof of The Importance of Being Earnest is surely a composition of genius. The McCarter production is worthy of this genius — also admirable, impressive and delightfully inventive in its staging and in the eight sterling, high-energy, high quality performances of its distinguished cast of eight.

Whether audiences will unreservedly enjoy this play is another question. Such rich fare can be overwhelming. A number of patrons left at intermission last Saturday night, slightly more than halfway through the three-hour show. The fast and furious pace of allusions, ideas, and farce are challenging to say the least. Theater-goers looking for traditional dramatic virtues of plot and depth of characterization will be disappointed. Some diners find both steak tartare and chocolate sauce, not to mention the combination, too much for the palate.

Travesties focuses on the character of Henry Carr (the redoubtable James Urbaniak), old man, sitting in his apartment, still in Zurich in 1974, and remembering, with questionable reliability, back to 1917: “Great days … Zurich during the war. Refugees, spies, exiles, painters, poets, writers, radicals of all kinds. I knew them all.”

The role is fabricated partly from history, partly from Mr. Stoppard’s fertile imagination. A Henry Carr did work as a consular official in Zurich and did in fact play the role of Algernon in a Zurich production of The Importance of Being Earnest produced by The English Players of which Joyce was the business manager at the time. He and Joyce did clash over money matters surrounding the production and their dispute did end up in court.

As Mr. Stoppard wrote in the program notes for the original production, Travesties is a work of fiction which makes use, and misuse, of history. Scenes which are self-evidently documentary mingle with others which are just as evidently fantastical. People who were hardly aware of each other’s existence are made to collide; real people and imaginary people are brought together without ceremony; and events which took place months, and even years, apart are presented as synchronous.”

Mr. Urbaniak embraces this character with panache, both the irascible, forgetful old man (“… you may or may not have noticed that I got my wires crossed a bit here and there, you know how it is when the old think-box gets stuck in a groove and before you know where you are you’ve jumped the points…”) and the urbane young swain.

He transitions seamlessly from the long monologues of an old man’s reminiscences (a la Krapp’s Last Tape) to the vibrant setting (a la The Importance of Being Earnest with an added dose of politics and aesthetics) of Zurich and Carr’s encounters — political, personal and romantic — with Joyce (Fred Arsenault), Tristan Tzara (Christian Coulson), Lenin (Demosthenes Chrysan), Lenin’s wife Nadya (Lusia Strus), Carr’s eccentric butler Bennett (Everett Quinton), his sister Gwendolyn (Susannah Flood) and a young librarian, Cecily (Sara Topham), whom he falls in love with and later marries.

Mr. Coulson’s Tzara, with scissors in hand as he cuts out his words to scramble his poetic creations, is a fascinating, credible figure, vehemently defending his radical aesthetic theories, as he simultaneously pursues his romantic and personal ends.

Mr. Arsenault’s James Joyce, working on Ulysses, described here by Tzara as “derived from reference to Homer and the Dublin telephone book of 1904,” brings this unusual literary figure and his avid limerick-making to vivid, memorable life.

Mr. Chrysan’s Lenin and Ms. Strus’s Nadya are both formidable, authoritative characterizations, seen from a certain distance here — Mr. Carr had little or no actual interaction with the Russian revolutionary. Their dialogue and his speeches are almost entirely taken from historical documents.

Ms. Flood’s Gwendolyn and Ms. Topham’s Cecily both perform admirably in their embracing of the wild (and Wilde) world of this play and in encountering, with flair and poise, the erratic male characters who surround them. Ms. Topham is particularly strong, articulate, and striking throughout, as librarian, Leninist, and romantic interest, then wife, to Carr.

The incomparable Everett Quinton contributes a delightfully bizarre performance as Carr’s edgy, class conscious butler Bennett.

Production values here are of extraordinarily high quality. David Farley’s breathtaking set creates the huge shelves, dark wood paneling, and even a winding staircase between levels of the realistic Zurich library, then transforms so swiftly and effectively to Henry Carr’s small apartment, with clear, specific distinctions between 1917 and 1974 versions.

Mr. Farley’s colorfully fashionable costumes, historically specific and expressive for the period and the particular characters, along with David Weiner’s dramatic, varied, and nuanced lighting, all provide firm grounding and clarification in the creation of the worlds of this play. The renowned David Shire has composed the appropriate, appealing music for the production.

Yes, some knowledge of Europe during World War I, Lenin and the Russian Revolution, Joyce, Tzara, and artistic movements of the early twentieth century is helpful here; but this luminous, dynamic cast, each character aflame with his or her particular passion, and the lucid, imaginative, intelligent direction of Mr. Buntrock (director of an award-winning revival of Sunday in the Park with George in London and New York, 2005-2008, and Take Flight at McCarter two years ago) keep the whirling words and actions moving along on track and in focus. This superb production delivers Mr. Stoppard’s Travesties — jam-packed with word-play, literary allusions, and historical references — with a dazzlingly light touch that assures entertainment even when confusion might defy comprehension.

February 29, 2012

On a night when Hollywood was honoring its own with the Oscars telecast, The Princeton Singers paid homage to its own past, as well as Princeton history, with a concert of late 19th and early 20th-century British and American choral music. As part of its continuing collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum, The Princeton Singers invited its audience to sit in the chancel of the Princeton University Chapel for a concert of some of the greatest hits of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, complementing the Art Museum’s exhibit of Princeton and the Gothic Revival, 1870-1930.

Princeton Singers conductor Steven Sametz placed the 18-member vocal ensemble under the foot of the chancel, facing the high altar. With conductor and singers so close together, it was easy to keep control over the sound, and an intimate concert environment was created for the audience. Throughout the evening, the homophonic music of late 19th century England was well-blended and diction came through well.

Sunday night’s concert was subtitled “Vivat Regina!” and the singers cut right to the chase, opening with C. Hubert H. Parry’s I Was Glad, sung at every royal coronation since 1902 and heard most recently in royal context as the bride’s processional at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. This piece was designed to shake the rafters, with its top-volume organ registration and harmonic shifts, and the space of the University Chapel was a perfect venue for this lush music. The four-manual Aeolian Skinner Chapel organ also provided ample choices in registration and dynamics for this program. Parry created his setting for the traditional British choir of men and boys, whose laser sound would cut through Gothic walls and organ registration, but the Princeton Singers sopranos had an equally pure sound in the cozy setting.

All the works chosen for Sunday evening’s program showed a full clean sound with explicit diction. Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s Wash Me Thoroughly in particular was sung with a flowing choral tone. Penitent in its simplicity, the Wesley anthem demonstrated especially well-blended men’s sections while the sopranos topped off the sound like icing.

Dr. Sametz contrasted these chordal anthems with the more jarring style of Charles Ives to show how the British Anglican revival was assimilated into American music. Both “General Booth Enters into Heaven” and the closing Psalm 90 of Charles Ives were percussive in vocal style. For the General Booth anthem, Dr. Sametz moved the chorus outside of the chancel, leaving bass soloist William Walker close to the audience. It would have been easy to hear Mr. Walker from anywhere in the hall, and both choir and soloist conveyed the musical drama well, accompanied in the tricky piano part by Akiko Hosaki. Ives’s setting of Psalm 90 was smooth and sustained, punctuated by bells played by members of the Nassau Presbyterian Church’s Ringers. The Singers well maintained the long choral stream of this piece, while soloists tenor Peter De Mets and soprano Martha Ainsworth carried well in the space. Ms. Ainsworth was appropriately restrained in a complex vocal line which left little room for overly-Romantic singing. Dr. Sametz intermingled the choral pieces on the program with organ works played by Timothy Harrell. In both the Edward Elgar and Horatio Parker works, Mr. Harrell was able to take full advantage of the wide range of dynamics and registration available from the instrument.

Princeton Singers concerts are often mini-courses in music history, and Sunday night’s performance was no exception. The actual museum exhibit may have been nearby, but the gothic structure of the University Chapel provided plenty of atmosphere to transport the audience to an earlier era and give them some new musical insight to take home.

Have our cell phones transformed the nature and quality of our most important human relationships? Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone (2007) provides its audiences with an engaging, thought-provoking, consistently amusing, and frequently surprising experience exploring this, and other timely issues, at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus for one more weekend.

Intelligently and dynamically staged here with a poised six-member undergraduate ensemble under the sure-handed direction of Princeton University junior Daniel Rattner, Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a dark romantic comedy — yes, definitely about cell phones and the problems with contemporary communication, but also about the larger peculiarities of this modern world and about no less than our struggle for fulfillment through connection with other human beings, in this world and the next.

Ms. Ruhl, emerging as a major new playwright of the twenty-first century (Eurydice in 2003, The Clean House in 2004, and In the Next Room in 2009, a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006 and twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), dexterously shuttles back and forth in her plays between the surreal and the mundane. Dead Man’s Cell Phone, with its twelve scenes in two acts, provides a steady stream of surprises — in characters’ words and actions, in plot, and in ideas.

As clever in her quirky insights into the eccentricities of human nature as she is poetic and inventive in her uses of language, Ms. Ruhl makes the most of the clever premise indicated in her title. The lights rise on a café. A man and a woman sit at tables on opposite sides of the stage, and after a silent minute — anguished on her part, frozen on his — the first of many cell phones rings is heard. The rings cease briefly, only to start up again, until the annoyed woman, Jean (Sarah Paton), asks the man, Gordon (Michael Pinsky), to answer his phone. He doesn’t move. He can’t, of course, because he’s dead, which she eventually realizes, after she has answered the phone. She is immediately swept into his complicated personal and professional lives.

Throughout the play, Jean feels compelled to hold onto the dead man’s phone, and she continues to answer calls. She attends Gordon’s funeral, meets his imperious mother (Savannah Hankinson), his mysterious Other Woman (Bits Sola), his eccentric widow Hermia (Annika Bennett), and his shy, sweet brother Dwight (Eric Traub).

From her initial exasperation at the annoyance of Gordon’s unanswered phone to an acute compassion and curious desire to connect with the dead man and his world, Jean finds herself taking responsibility for passing along, and creating, the meaning of Gordon’s life, his mysterious career and his most important relationships. This ambitious and daring undertaking sends Jean deep into the worlds of romance, international intrigue and family dysfunction in a series of wild scenes—from café to church to mom’s dinner party to bar to stationery store to Johannesburg airport to some semblance of the after-life (or it might be another planet).

As she continues on her quest to connect and make meaning out of the mystery and loneliness of her life, of Gordon’s life and the lives of his loved ones, she finds herself making up increasingly creative tales. “I call Jean’s stories confabulations, I never call them lies…,” Ms. Ruhl writes in her notes for the director.

Ms. Paton, as the frenetic, beleaguered, ultimately triumphant protagonist, undergoes a wide range of emotions and experiences during the course of the two-hour evening. She creates a sympathetic character, though less than credible at times in age (late 30s — an almost 20-year stretch for this actress) and in a dependence on the distraught look, the sighs and furrowed brow at the expense of a wider variety of reactions. It would have been helpful, and in keeping with the fanciful nature of the play to see Jean at times relaxing the distressed demeanor and enjoying more fully the power and creative challenges of her romantic, moral adventure.

As Gordon, Mr. Pinsky plays a convincing dead man in the opening scene, makes an astonishing entrance at the end of act one, returns in act two to tell us about his last day, and, with effective self-assurance and lack of affectation, delivers, to Jean and the audience, essential words for contemplation.

Ms. Hankinson as the formidable, doting mother creates a compelling presence and almost steals the show in creating an unforgettable character — albeit, as written, more of a two-dimensional caricature. Her funeral speech for her son, interrupted by a ringing cell phone, of course, is a tour de force, followed up expertly with classic matriarchal encounters, peppered with searing one-liners directed at Jean, her younger son and her daughter-in-law.

Ms. Bennett’s Hermia, Gordon’s widow, is another larger-than-life yet thoroughly believable character — fascinating and compelling in her eccentricity, manifested, for just one example, in her final decision, and final appearance in full regalia, to join the Ice Follies.

Mr. Traub as Dwight, a striking contrast to the more flamboyant characters surrounding him and a suitable match for the protagonist, and Ms. Sola as the enigmatic Other Woman provide first-rate support and interest to the play’s romantic and adventure plots.

The pacing occasionally drags here, as Jean wends her way towards love and fulfillment. “There is a great deal of silence and empty space in this play,” Ms. Ruhl describes, “but the pauses should not be epic.” The glimpses of yearning, loneliness, isolation — what Ms. Ruhl describes as frozen Edward Hopper (the painter) moments — are important, but this production could pick up the pace at times, both between and within scenes.

Mark Watter’s simple, flexible set,—single café tables stage right and stage left, simple platforms upstage and basic furniture brought on as necessary, serves the play well. Sean Drohan’s richly colorful lighting, with the backdrop transforming from fuchsia in the first scene to an array of different hues, ending in bright pink for the finale, contributes significantly to the creation of this surreal world.

“You know what’s funny?” Jean confides to Dwight near the end of the first act. “I never had a cell phone. I didn’t want to always be there, you know. Like if your phone is on you’re supposed to be there. Sometimes I like to disappear. But it’s like — when everyone has their cell phone on, no one is there. It’s like we’re all disappearing the more we’re there.” It’s not just a coincidence that the most meaningful relationship in the play takes place between two characters who meet in person, without any electronic communication, and who find love in a stationery store, triumphing over the intrusions of cell phones into their lives.